The Martinez family was traveling along a Mississippi highway in 2017 – on their way to a vacation – when a sheriff’s deputy stopped them for no apparent reason. The family was then detained by the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office for approximately four hours based solely on the fact that they look Latino, and without any reason to believe that they had committed a crime. The SPLC filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Martinez family whose rights were violated as a result of the ordeal.
During the family’s detention, the deputy – who announced that he was looking for “illegals” – confiscated the family’s passports and valid immigration documents, and repeatedly threatened the father, Marcos Martinez, with losing his lawful permanent residency if he did not admit to possessing drugs.
Despite two invasive searches and extensive questioning during the stop, no drugs or any other evidence of criminal activity was found. The family’s only “crime” was that they looked Latino.
For around two hours, the Martinez family was detained on the side of Interstate 10, their bags were searched, and the contents of their luggage were strewn all over the van’s trunk. The family was then taken to the sheriff’s office where they were detained for approximately two more hours.
A sheriff’s deputy drove Stephanie Martinez to tears by threatening to separate her from her three children. The children were scared that their father would be deported following the deputy’s threats, even though Marcos Martinez, who was born in Mexico, has legal status in the United States.
Marcos Martinez’s 83-year-old mother, his sister and a family friend were also in the van and were detained. All the van’s occupants were in the country legally, either by virtue of their U.S. citizenship, legal residency or valid visas. Stephanie Martinez and her three children are U.S. citizens.
Local law enforcement officials such as Hancock County sheriff’s deputies cannot perform the functions of an immigration officer except under very narrow circumstances, such as in a formal agreement with the federal government. Hancock County did not have such an agreement.
The family’s harrowing experience ended only after Stephanie Martinez made a 911 call from a room inside the sheriff’s office where the family was being held, and demanded their release. The Martinez family’s immigration lawyer also called the sheriff’s office and challenged their detention. Soon afterward, the family was told that they could leave. Nothing illegal was ever found and no member of the family was ever charged with a crime or even received a traffic ticket.
The actions of Hancock County and its sheriff’s deputies violated the family’s rights under the U.S. Constitution to equal protection under the law and to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, according to the lawsuit. The family’s rights under Mississippi state law – to be free from false arrest and false imprisonment – were also violated, the lawsuit states. Additionally, the deputies’ actions caused the family significant emotional distress and undermined their trust in law enforcement officers.